Staggering scale of grave violations against children in conflict revealed in new UNICEF analysis

Between 2016 and 2020, average of 71 verified grave violations against children every day

28 June 2022
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NEW YORK/GENEVA, 28 JUNE 2022 – Between 2005 and 2020, the United Nations verified over 266,000 grave violations against children committed by parties to conflict in more than 30 conflict situations across Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, UNICEF said today in a new report. This figure is a fraction of the violations believed to have occurred, as access and security constraints, among others, and the shame, pain, and fear that child and family survivors suffer often hamper the reporting, documentation and verification of grave violations against children in situations of armed conflict.

The report – 25 years of children and armed conflict: Taking action to protect children in warfound that between 2005 and 2020 more than 104,100 children have been verified as killed or maimed in situations of armed conflict; more than 93,000 children have been verified as recruited and used by parties to conflict; at least 25,700 children have been verified as abducted by parties to conflict; parties to conflict have raped, forcibly married, sexually exploited, and committed other grave forms of sexual violence against at least 14,200 children. The United Nations verified more than 13,900 incidents of attacks against schools and hospitals and verified no fewer than 14,900 incidents of denial of humanitarian access for children since 2005.

“This report lays out in the starkest possible terms the world’s failure to protect its children from grave violations during times of armed conflict,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “Grave violations devastate children, families, and communities – and they tear at the fabric of society, making it even harder to restore and sustain peace, security, and stability. We must refuse to accept violations against children as an unavoidable outcome of war.”

Based on sixteen years of data from the Secretary-General’s Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict, the report illustrates the impact that armed conflicts have had on children, by presenting trends of grave violations across the world and over time. The report examines how information on the documented patterns of grave violations is being used to respond to children’s needs and how engagement with parties to conflict – State and non-State actors alike – enables ending and preventing grave violations.

The annual number of verified violations has gradually increased since 2005, surpassing 20,000 in a year for the first time in 2014 and reaching 26,425 in 2020. Between 2016 and 2020, the daily global average of verified grave violations stood at an alarming 71 violations. The elevated number of violations observed in recent years demonstrates the dramatic impact that armed conflict – and increasingly complex and protracted protection crises – have on children.

The report notes that many children suffer from more than one violation, increasing their vulnerability. For example, abduction is often combined with or leads to other violations, particularly recruitment and use and sexual violence. Children – especially girls – who have been abducted and/or associated with parties to conflict are exposed to elevated risks of sexual violence, including rape, sexual exploitation and forced marriage.

The report found that grave violations against children were committed by all parties to conflict, States and non-State actors alike. Between 2016 and 2020, State actors – including national and international forces and coalitions – were responsible for at least 26% of all violations. In comparison, non-State actors accounted for about 58% of all verified violations, underscoring the importance of engagement with all parties to conflict, including non-state actors, to meaningfully end and prevent violations against children.

In order to bolster accountability, parties to conflict listed in the Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict develop and implement Action Plans with specific, concrete, and time-bound actions to establish sustainable measures to protect children from the impact of conflict. Between 2005 and 2021, a total of 37 Action Plans have been signed by parties to conflict in 17 conflict situations. Around 70 per cent of Action Plans were signed with non-State actors, with the remaining 30 per cent signed with State actors. The report lays out several examples highlighting the critical value and impact of Action Plans in bringing about positive change for children, both in the immediate and long terms, as well as outlining challenges and obstacles.

The ever-growing number of armed non-State actors, the development and employment of new means and methods of warfare, the use of improvised explosive devices and other explosive weapons, particularly in populated areas, are just some of the many factors contributing to the creation of unprecedented challenges for the protection of children in situations of armed conflict.

The report also found:

  • Children from poorer backgrounds and children of specific status or characteristics – including refugee, internally displaced and indigenous children, among others – remain at heightened risk of grave violations.
  • Available sex-disaggregated data indicates that verified incidents of grave violations have predominantly affected boys. For instance, in 2020, boys accounted for 73 per cent of all child victims, with the vast majority of child victims of recruitment and use (85 per cent boys), abduction (76 per cent boys) and killing and maiming (70 per cent boys) being boys. In comparison, girls accounted for one-fourth (26 per cent) of all child victims, including 98 per cent of child victims of rape and other grave forms of sexual violence.
  • Between 2016 and 2020, 79 per cent of all verified child casualties – or about 41,900 children – occurred in only five situations: Afghanistan (30 per cent), Israel and the State of Palestine (14 per cent), Syria (13 per cent), Yemen (13 per cent) and Somalia (9 per cent).
  • The use of explosive weapons, particularly in populated areas and those with wide area effect, are a persistent threat to children and their families. In 2020 alone, explosive weapons and explosive remnants of war were responsible for at least 47 per cent of all child casualties, resulting in more than 3,900 children killed and maimed.

It is important to note that the increase in verified violations over time also underscores the increasing strength of the monitoring and reporting mechanism over the years. The development of guidance on monitoring and reporting, the training and capacity building of UN and its partners’ staff on documenting grave violations, and the awareness raising of families and communities on the protection risks for children, have all contributed to strengthen the mechanism and enabled it to collect increased information on grave violations against children.

Whilst the overall ability of the United Nations to document and verify incidents of grave violations has increased over time, it has fluctuated from one year to another, from one situation to another, and from one violation to another. In this regard, and based on all of the above, direct comparisons between situations, years, or violations should be undertaken with caution.

“UNICEF and our partners will not waver in our work to prevent grave violations against children,” said Russell. “With more children affected by conflict, violence, and crises now than at any time since the Second World War, this work has never been more urgent.” 

The report recommendations, based on the evidence and analysis presented, aim to mobilize all concerned stakeholders, including parties to conflict, States, and the UN Security Council, to effectively and sustainably protect children and to accelerate action at local, national, regional, and global levels.

In addition to calling on parties to conflict, and states, to abide by their obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law, the report includes recommendations on:

  • how to better provide adequate care and response services to children affected by conflict,
  • ways to improve data disaggregation and analysis for better response and prevention,
  • how to support Country Task Forces on Monitoring and Reporting (CTFMRs) to accelerate action, and improve CTFMR engagement with governments;
  • ways to better engage with parties to conflict to develop Action Plans and sustainably protect children.


Note on the Democratic Republic of Congo:

An increasing number of grave violations against children have been verified in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since 2005. DRC has consistently ranked in the global top 3 countries in terms of the number of verified grave violations, with 5,256 verified violation in 2020 – representing an average of more than 14 grave violations per day.

DRC has been the country with the highest number of children recruited and used by armed forced and groups since 2005. Between 2014 and 2020, children under 15 accounted for more than 35% of all children associated with parties to conflict. Significant progress towards ending and preventing child recruitment and use was also done, which resulted notably to the delisting of the FARDC in 2017 for that violation. With UNICEF’s support, more than 1,100 children were effectively screened out and separated from the FARDC between 2012 and 2020, with a few isolated cases of children recruited or used in support functions since 2017.

DRC is also the country with the highest number of verified cases of sexual violence and one of the countries with the highest prevalence of verified cases attributed to State actors (39%). At least 40% of all cases of sexual violence occurred during or after an abduction and/or recruitment and use of children. Out of 763 children victim of sexual violence between January 2018 and March 2020, 299 children were abused as a result of recruitment and use and 32 as a result of abduction. Efforts to prevent sexual violence, provide services to survivors and fight against the impunity of the perpetrators should continue and be reinforced.

While DRC ranks 2nd globally with more than 880 verified attacks on schools and hospitals since 2005, it was the most affected country in 2020, with more than 173 verified attacks. Over the past few years, parties to conflict have also hindered essential humanitarian interventions.

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